Chat a la Roulette

Remember Spin the Bottle? Well, now you can play a sort Spin the Webcam though a new application called Chatroulette.

This cross between speed dating and high school hallway hellos got a bit of mainstream media play last week and as a result People Have Been Talking.

First let me say this: I have not tried it.

I’m simply not comfortable with my image being sent to people I actually DO know --  let alone with random strangers who, according to reports, range from hordes of teens and young adults to creepy men in various stages of undress.

Nope, not my style. But in the four short months it has been out there, it is clearly someone’s style. When I stopped by shortly after midnight EST one night, the site’s counter claimed more than 20,000 people were currently signed on and playing.

Chatroulette is just what its name implies. You sign on. Your webcam starts. On one side of the screen are two boxes, one of which contains your image and one of which contains someone else’s webcast image. On the other side of the screen is a chat window.

Commence interaction!

Don’t like the first person who appears? Click on the NEXT button and another random person spins into the conversation partner slot. NEXT. NEXT. NEXT. It’s like a game, you see, you keep spinning until you get a number you like.

For some reason, commentators are Surprised and Stunned that a chat room with video attracts a lot of teens and lot of yicky older men.

Uhm, anyone remember CUCME in the earliest days of webcams? I’m sure it had many nice applications like early web-based video conferencing, but the ones you heard about most were a) lots of chatting college/high school kids and b) video sex.

There’s just something about random cameras that attracts a) giggling teens and b) pathetic people with no life. In other words, it attracts people with extra time who aren’t freaked out by webcams.

In theory, it should be a thing of beauty, a way to break down boundaries and connect to others, to build bridges and promote brotherhood. In a perfect world Chatroulette would be a tool to meet interesting and diverse people. However, we don’t live in that world.

From the beginning open-ended chat has been a rough place. Forums, communities, and other organizational structures were ways to winnow out the chaff and make a space where like-minded types could feel safe and connect to build those bridges of brotherhood. Or at least to find someone else who liked to talk about cats 24/7.

For a few months, no one knew where Chatroulette was coming from, other than an anonymous server in Germany. Last week The New York Times tracked down a 17-year old Russian high school student who takes credit for it. He says he’s been coding since he was 11.

The Times quotes him as saying via email:

I created this project for fun. Initially, I had no business goals with it. I created this project recently. I was and still am a teenager myself, that is why I had a certain feeling of what other teenagers would want to see on the Internet. I myself enjoyed talking to friends with Skype using a microphone and webcam. But we got tired of talking to each other eventually. So I decided to create a little site for me and my friends where we could connect randomly with other people.

He says that Chatroulette uses seven high-end servers in Frankfurt, Germany and that network throughput is 7 gigabits a second.

Chatroulette creator Andrey Ternovskiy’s age (if it is indeed real) shouldn’t surprise anyone either. Think about Chatroulette again. It is a teenage application and exactly what a 17 year old with time on his hands might create.  Which is why it assumes a world made only of other teens (after all, when you are 17 is there really anyone else in the world? ) and doesn’t consider how to protect against the creepy-uglies.

It also has global interconnectedness embedded in it from the get-go.  Of course, that’s part of being a teen today. You live in a global world where everyone is a click away. You don’t blink at the concept of gigabits of data whizzing around. Isn’t that how everything works?  What’s not to like about Chatroulette?

Well, no one likes the perverts.

Which is why the Internet safety folks are having a cow. Kids spinning the wheel might get an interesting person … or they might get something one might find on one of those unfortunate high-numbered cable TV channels. Can you say Ewwwww?

Then again, that’s why it’s called roulette. That’s why, just like with television, you gotta' know there’s unpleasant stuff out there. And you gotta' make your kids smart about clicking away as fast as they can when those things appear. And you need to not let them get onto something like this alone.

There’s already a whole secondary stream of commentary about it, too. There are YouTube videos of Chatroulette exchanges. People are tweeting about their Chatroulette sessions. Apparently there is even a drinking game – a shot for every fill-in-body-part-of-your-choice you see. 

It’s pop culture of the 21st century.

The imitators are launching. For example, chat site TinyChat has just brought out its own random video chat. Following the route taken by text-based chat, it is letting users create topic-based rooms where like minded groups can form … well, those aforementioned bonds of brotherhood!

Top “communities” in this beta product are sports, news, technology, entertainment, music, and animals. Sound familiar?

So I guess the burning question in America this week is this: To spin or not to spin.  Forget that pesky health care debate and any of those other boring old topics!
And if you spin, what will you get? Will you click next … or will you be ‘nexted” away yourself?  Enquiring minds are just waiting to find out... welcomes thoughtful comments and the varied opinions of our readers. We are in no way obligated to post or allow comments that our moderators deem inappropriate. We reserve the right to delete comments we perceive as profane, vulgar, threatening, offensive, racially-biased, homophobic, slanderous, hateful or just plain rude. Commenters may not attack or insult other commenters, readers or writers. Commenters who persist in posting inappropriate comments will be banned from commenting on